Maurice Ravel: Piano Concerto in G Major

On Monday mornings in high school (in the early 1970s), everyone talked about the parties they had gone to over the weekends. The parties always took place at the house of someone whose parents had gone out of town. Each one was rated on how much beer was drunk and which girls were there. During the week, most of my male peers and I would try to find where the next was going to be. No one really wanted to host one for fear that the crowd would grow too big and trash the house.

One weekend, my parents went out of town and it was only in the evening that I told a few of my pals from the swim team. About four of five guys showed up and we proceeded to get extremely drunk–the whole point. About 10:00 in the evening my brother Ken–who was about 3 years older than I and at college in a town about 90 miles away–called to check on me, probably on the instruction of my parents. At the time, I was under the dining room table, barking like a dog and therefore could not come to the phone. My friend Matt Vandeputte answered, told my brother why I hadn’t answered, and hung up. I believe I bit him on the leg. The next morning, severely hung over, I awoke to the sound of Ken, who’d driven home. He was very angry at me, but to his credit he did not tell my parents. I think he had been mollified when he realized the party hadn’t been too big and the house remained intact.

Most of my friends on the swim team had parties like that. We were too responsible to let people come in and destroy our parents’ house. That didn’t stop us from doing damage when we went to other people’s parties. Once, for example, I went to a friend’s house whose parents were devout Christians and very active in their church. I went around with a pad of Post-It notes, writing down obscenities and then sticking them behind all the pictures in the house. Another time, I submerged a model train in an aquarium. Don’t ask me why.

One night, a swim team mate, Dick M*****, announced that his parents were out of town and a few of us could come over. His father was some big wig at the local radio station and they lived in a new exclusive community called Winding Brook Park. It wasn’t really a party. I think we had a six pack between about four of us and his parents had locked the liquor cabinet, so we did not plan to stay long. Unfortunately, Dick’s older brother was there. He was the valedictorian in the class above us and that made him almost by definition incredibly dull and boring. The brother took us on a tour of the house, showing all the wonderful books, records, the “total sound” stereo system, and the locked liquor cabinet.

The record collection caught my attention and I was surprised to see that they had a fair number of classical albums. Leafing through it, I discovered a copy of two piano concertos by Maurice Ravel, the Piano Concerto for Left Hand and today’s Piano Concerto in G Major. I asked Dick’s brother if he could give it a spin on their fancy schmancy stereo, and he was more than delighted.

When the G Major started, I was really surprised, because I had heard it on the local classical channel before. But I thought Gershwin had written it. The first movement starts off with a fast, upbeat theme that bounces back and forth between a trumpet and a piccolo, while the piano plays high and fast in the background. It slows after a bit and then the piano plays a pensive little rhythm and the E-Flat clarinet launches off into a sexy phrases that sounds like it was lifted right out of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. A few phrases later, Ravel quotes Stravinski’s Petroushka. You can hear Rachmaninoff everywhere, too boot. Ravel himself says the concerto was inspired by Mozart and Saint-Saens, but it sounds sometimes more of a pastiche of snippets taken from his own peers. This is not necessarily a bad thing, it’s just that whenever I hear the piece on the radio, I have a devil of a time trying to figure out whose it is.

Ravel’s teacher was Gabriel Faure, who wrote the incomparably beautiful Requiem and Pavanne and the second movement is a nod to his mentor’s song-writing ability. It is quiet, dignified, and sweet. In the final movement, Ravel switches back to the exuberance of the first movement. As in the first, he weaves in Jazz rhythms and melodies, which he had been greatly affected by on a trip to the Unites States in the 1920s. In addition, the piano sometimes adopts the meticulous finger work of Ravel’s own Le Tombeau de Couperin.

Though not the piece you’d necessarily choose for a high school drinking party, nor even for a romantic dinner party, Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G Major is quite an interesting piece and ought to be in anyone’s CD library.

Download MP3 or Buy CD from Amazon

%d bloggers like this: